Slow Summer Reading
What the Wright Brothers (and Sister) Teach Us About Innovation and Character
Five years ago inside the Library of Congress, I was handed a tiny, black leather-bound diary open to Orville Wright’s thoughts from September 1903. Both he and Wilbur were meticulous documenters as they worked to realize their dream of flight. Holding Orville’s diary prompted my curiosity about these men and how they changed the course of history.
Fast forward to this summer: I was in a tiny bookstore (yes, they still exist) in a small northern New Jersey town. On the first display table, I spotted The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, one of America’s great historians and storytellers. The time had come to dig deep on the brothers.
The Wright Brothers follows Orville and Wilbur and the amazing journey of their lives. Early in his book, McCullough sets a context that should give anyone with the dream of launching a big idea great hope. He writes:
“In no way did any of the [setbacks that they had experienced] discourage or deter Wilbur and Orville Wright, any more than the fact that they had had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”
As if these challenges weren’t enough, the brothers lost their mother as young children and had a frequently absent father who, as a preacher, traveled much of their lives.
But what makes the brothers’ story so compelling is the lifetime of letters they left behind. McCullough pulls from their ongoing, interwoven dialogue a portrait of complex family relationships. The brothers’ beloved sister Katherine, a high school teacher, emerges brightly in the book as the family’s anchor. Traveling the world with her virally famous brothers brought Katharine her own fame, yet she revealed an inner core and consistency of character (steadfastness to the family’s values) like few people I have ever read about. McCullough makes clear that the brothers would have struggled emotionally had she not been such a balance in their lives.
In reading this incredible biography, I was amazed that every question I began to ponder five years ago was answered. Here is just a sampling of the many questions McCullough explores:
- Who were the brothers? Or, as Mitchell Reiss, CEO of Colonial Williamsburg, says great biographies should answer, “How did they become the people they were?”
- Why did the brothers choose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina of all places, and what made that location so important?
- How did they transition from a plane that glided to one that supported a man and a motor for hours in the air?
- Who else was trying to do what they did, and why did the Wright Brothers win?
- Just how famous were they in their own lifetimes, and how did they deal with fame?
- What role did luck and randomness play in their vision and good fortune, as they so often do in stories of success?
- How did they deal with the naysayers and the conspiracy theorists who rooted against them and all they stood for?
- What did it feel like to be the first human alive to witness—and to experience—sustained manned flight?
I wondered as I read their story what it would be like if the Wright brothers could dine with today’s technology icons Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. From who the Wright brothers were, how they thought, the ideals that drove them, and their ability to learn quickly and apply feedback to their work, I believe they would hold their own at any table. They were not the sort of men to dominate a conversation, but they were always potent and clear, so much so that any icon today would very likely be humbled. It is the Wright Brothers’ humility that stands out most: a pure, earnest, and uncompromising humility. McCullough repeats several times throughout the book how the brothers remained “unaffected by success.”
As he explores who the Wright brothers were, McCullough’s ability to find significance in the seemingly ordinary brings in a level of detail that is stunning. Near the book’s beginning, he describes the brothers walking away from an early machine glider with this: “From the undamaged portions of the sateen wing covering, Addie Tate (wife of a local Kitty Hawk collaborator) was to sew dresses for their two daughters.” Imagine a child wearing pieces of the very cloth that would change humanity’s future. Yet those two little girls likely headed off to church or school with no notion of what they were really wearing: pure American history.
As we head into the final weeks of summer and look towards the fall, I hope you will consider reading this rich, compelling book and savor the writing of a modern master. The Wright Brothers brought me to places as a leader that allowed me to realize how much of an advantage I have in running a company that the brothers would never have imagined. They found it all out by themselves and used the power of reflection tied to prototyping to learn things ahead of their time.
Authored by Daniel Forrester, CEOReturn to Blog